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Hot Tub Drowning Prompts Calls For Emergency Shutoff Switches

May 30, 1996

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ A 16-year-old girl’s drowning in a hot tub has prompted a state examination of whirlpool safety and a promise to push for a law requiring the tubs to have nearby emergency shutoff switches.

Tanya Marie Nickens was underwater for 8 to 9 minutes before someone could reach the emergency shutoff switch in the basement of a fitness club Saturday. She died after 12 tons of suction pressure pinned her body over an unprotected grate.

Tanya is the sixth person to die with body parts trapped in hot tubs or pools since 1980, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said. Since 1978, there have been 49 reported hair entrapments, 13 of them fatal, spokesman Rick Frost said Wednesday.

In Tanya’s case, the plastic grate over a 12-inch by 12-inch drain opening in the Atlantic Club hot tub was broken into four pieces, said Monmouth County Public Health Coordinator Lester Jargowsky.

That allowed Nickens, one of 300 Lakewood High School juniors attending a supervised, alcohol-free party at the fitness club early Saturday, to become stuck in the drain, creating a vacuum stronger than the friends, lifeguards and police officers frantically trying to free her.

``There should have been a switch for them to kick the suction off,″ said Nickens’ 24-year-old brother, Stephen Andre. ``We want them to put one in there before anything like this happens again.″

Citing its own concerns, the state Department of Health is convening a task force today to focus on improving safety.

James Blumenstock, assistant commissioner of the department’s Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Services, said 12 to 15 state, county, consumer and industry representatives will examine both New Jersey and national safety regulations to determine whether stronger ones are needed.

``Certainly one of the things that we will be looking at is the need for and location of emergency shutoffs,″ Blumenstock said.

Blumenstock said the task force hopes to distribute public health alerts to all hot tub operators reminding them to routinely examine their suction outlet covers.

Two assemblymen Wednesday promised to introduce legislation today requiring both new and old hot tubs to have shutoff switches on or near the tubs.

``This nightmare never would have happened if a shutoff switch had been located within easy reach,″ Assemblymen Steve Corodemus said. ``We want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.″

Prosecutors Wednesday said they would file no charges in Nickens’ death, as hundreds of mourners paid their respects at a wake with roses, balloons and other mementos.

Inside the funeral parlor, the only sounds came from sobs and sniffles as fresh-faced teen-agers coped with death, many for the first time. They hugged each other for support, wore T-shirts with her photograph emblazoned on them and carried snapshots.